What should one say to school children about to make university choices regarding life after school? Of course there are lots of positive things – clichés abound to supply them – but there are also the darker elements of the conveyor belt they are on. Talking to a group of around 50 teenage girls considering applying to Cambridge for maths or natural sciences last week, I found myself wondering whether honesty is always the best policy.
As the local student newspaper Varsity described earlier this summer, Cambridge maths remains overwhelmingly male. This isn’t because the faculty want this to be the case (I know, because I’ve talked to some of them and they feel very strongly how disappointing this is), but they do expect, and probably require although there may be slight college variations, students to do well in STEP (Sixth Term Entry paper) exams as well as Maths and Further Maths A level. It is clear that this is less attractive to girls who, the evidence suggests, disproportionately don’t want that additional uncertainty and stress. In 2018 Varsity quotes a mere 35 female students were admitted to study maths at Cambridge, out of a grand total of 234 accepted students, the lowest proportion for many years.
To stress the low numbers being admitted, might just make potential applicants feel put off or presume that it’s all just too difficult for them, particularly if they in any way already lack self-confidence. Not to be open that the numbers are low seems misleading at the best. I was struck some years ago by an article from the USA stating that at high school the only successful intervention keeping female students in physical sciences (so not maths explicitly) was pointing out that women were typically under-represented. Not, as one might have thought, having female teachers, or single sex classes, or talking about female scientists or having female scientists come into the classroom. In this one study only talking about under-representation mattered.
It isn’t clear to me how much follow up work there has been by other groups, but a later paper from the same team indicated that talking about under-representation ‘explicitly creates an opportunity for students’ figured worlds of professional and school science to change, and facilitates challenging their own implicit assumptions about how the world functions.’ Which, in layperson speak I think means that children can re-evaluate some of the stereotypes they have internalised without necessarily noticing, but only if the low numbers are discussed in a supportive environment. So, from those studies, perhaps pointing out low numbers is not a bad thing to do, although after my talk there wasn’t really much indication of the students wanting to discuss this. It was the end of an intensive three days, there really wasn’t much sign of them wanting to do anything other than go home.
So moving on from these specific challenges, in my talk I discussed my career path, trying to point out – as I so often do – that life doesn’t necessarily go in straight lines and that things can go wrong without it meaning you personally are a failure. Perhaps to that audience that too was a mistake. Those girls presumably all have stellar track records at school; the hiccoughs that most lives throw up may not yet have assaulted them. Do they want to be told that my first post-doc was an unmitigated disaster and that luck enabled me to overcome those two years of nothingness? Different members of the audience may react with anything from ‘whatever’ to, if it’s all down to luck what’s the point of trying. It is so easy to tie myself up in knots (never mind those listening) with worrying about what the ‘right’ message is.
I have learned that talking about my CV as a ‘standard’ CV is probably the wrong thing to do. I remember using that phrase once to an audience of ECRs and being pulled up. I meant this was what my CV looked like in the way it might appear on a job application (really as opposed to one in which life-events such as marriage or children might feature, versions of my CV I also typically share). The challenger in this previous case obviously felt the word ‘standard’ came across as if everyone’s should end up with a big shiny FRS or professor’s title attached. Not my intention, but it just shows how careful one has to be.
However, whoever the audience and at whatever career stage, I do believe the mantra ‘seize opportunities’ applies; that it is hugely important not to be passive and wait for others to tell you what you should be doing but make your own deliberate life choices (even if they turn out not so well, they are at least your choices and you can usually change your mind or direction); that seeing confidence in others should not convince you that their confidence is warranted, so it should not undermine your own faith in your abilities; and, yes, luck plays a part in everyone’s life. I hope that by finishing off with those messages, leaving that slide up while answering the few questions that came my way, meant one or two useful take home (literally) messages may have resonated and may stay with some of the listeners. And I hope we will be seeing some of those students return to Cambridge in due course.